Sassanian Battle Elephants
If there’s anything in the wargame universe that’s cooler than a tank, it’s an elephant. An armored elephant, smashing enemies beneath its feet while archers on its back loose arrows on the foe.
Ancient Persia, the Achaemenid Dynasty that fought at Thermopylae and opposed Alexander the Great, deployed battle elephants in small numbers. The Greek Seleucid Dynasty who followed also used battle elephants, but the Parthians who overthrew the Seleucids did not.
The Sassanids overthrew the Parthians in 224 AD. Just when they began to field battle elephants is open to dispute; the long-discredited Historia Augusta credits the Sassanians with fielding them in several battles against the Romans in the 3rd century. The Historia, a collection of biographies of Roman rulers with letters and speeches, appears to have been concocted about two centuries later. Its effects linger in scholarship due to the near-complete lack of any other source material.
The argument for including elephants in the orders of battle for the first two Sassanian emperors, Ardashir I and Shapur I, mostly rests on the notion that the fraudster behind the Historia was clearly attempting to support political and religious arguments of the time. Therefore, he or she would have little reason to lie about the elephants and the Historia do include at least some actual, verifiable historical details. On the other hand, neither would the author have had any reason to tell the truth (and the majority of the work cannot be trusted). And experience shows that it’s much easier to concoct your own version of history than to actually research it.
An Indian elephant with howdah.
What can be said with fairly solid backing is that the Sassanid King of Kings Shapur II the Great fielded battle elephants during his war with the Roman Emperor Constantius II in 337-350, using them mostly in siege operations. That war came to a rather abrupt end when Shapur broke off operations to march east and face an invasion by the Central Asian people known as the Xionites (sometimes rendered Chionites, also known as the Kidarites and as the White Huns). The crisis could not have come at a better time for Constantius, who faced the threat of the usurper Magnentius.
Shapur suppressed the Xionites, and brought the remnants of the Kushan Empire under Sassanid rule. Whether he did so through military conquest or diplomatic persuasion is not clear, but what can be said for sure is that he renewed the war with Rome, surging across the frontier in the spring of 359 with a massive army bolstered by large numbers of Xionite light cavalry led by their king, Grumbates, and a corps of battle elephants.
This time the elephants would be used not only in the siege of Nisibis, as mobile siege towers, but also deployed in the main battle order. Sassanid practice usually placed the elephants behind the main lines of armored cavalry and infantry, as a final bulwark or emergency reserve. They carried archers in howdahs perched on their backs, and several Roman sources attest to their bearing armor as well.
The Roman historian Libanius states that Shapur II “had acquired a stock of elephants, not just for display but to meet the needs of the future.” Just when and where the king of kings obtained the beasts is not made clear. However, Shapur II waged his first military campaign in 325, at the age of 16, when he crushed the Arab tribes along the empire’s south-western and southern frontiers. Afterwards he marched east and subdued the Sassanid-Kushanite Kingdom, a semi-independent state located in what today is western Afghanistan and Pakistan that was subservient to the Sassanids but prone to continual rebellion.
It seems likely that Shapur got the elephants from the Kushans, who were known to operate them in battle. The next time he saw action against the Romans, at the siege of Nisibis in 337, his army included elephants. Shapur and his elephants returned to Nisibis in 346 (or possibly 348) and in 350, each time failing to take the city despite the elephants and despite heavy losses among the Persian elite.
Armenian depiction of Sassanid war elephants.
Constantius II’s cousin Julian, the future emperor, wrote that the elephants came from India, wore armor, and carried archers on their back. They also had an Indian driver equipped with a long blade to kill the elephant if it went berserk. While many modern authors disdain battle elephants as unreliable and subject to panic – probably drawing on the experience of Hannibal’s poorly-trained forest elephants used at the Battle of Zama, over five centuries before the time of Shapur – the Persian spah had trained both the elephants and their other arms to cooperate. Persian cavalry mounts had become used to the smell of the huge beasts, and the professional infantry had learned how to work with them.
The elephants finally participated in a successful siege in 359 against Amida, but suffered heavy losses and did not play a role in the city’s fall.
“Slowly marched the lines of elephants,” wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman staff officer present at the siege, “frightful with their wrinkled bodies and loaded with armed men, a hideous spectacle, dreadful beyond every form of horror.”
Despite the horror, the Amida garrison – including several hardened legions from the field army, trapped in the city when Shapur unexpectedly shifted targets – gleefully attacked them with torches and spears. German and Gallic legionaries made a sport of elephant hunting amid their frequent unauthorized sorties from the city.
Shapur finally deployed his elephants in field battles during Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate’s 363 invasion of Persian-ruled Mesopotamia. They had their greatest impact on the day after Julian’s death, when Shapur committed them to a shock attack alongside his armored heavy cavalry, with the elephants rupturing the Roman lines and the cavalry exploiting into the gaps (this battle is shown in Scenario Six of Fading Legions).
Sassanian elephants continued to fight for the king of kings after the war with Julian, seeing action against the Armenians in 451, the Hephthalites in 484, the Abyssinians in 575 and the Blue Turks in 588 at the massive Battle of Herat. Sassanian elephants had great success against Islamic Arab invaders at the Battle of the Bridges in 634, sending thousands fleeing in panic to drown in the Euphrates. A white elephant killed the Arab commander, Abu Ubeidah Taghti, ripping him from the saddle with its trunk, casting him to the ground and stomping him to death.
At the epic four-day Battle of Qadissiyah two years later the Arabs dismounted and swarmed the elephants on foot, fighting off their escorting infantry and cutting the girth holding their fighting towers in place. The renowned Arab warrior Ghagha bin Amr killed the mighty white elephant with a spear thurst into its eye. According to one of the multiple, conflicting accounts of the battle’s end, the Persian commander, Prince Rustam, was killed when a dying elephant fell on him during the battle’s last day.
We bring the elephants in Rome at War: Fading Legions and its expansion book, King of Kings.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold does not fear elephants. He probably should.